MIT to conduct internal probe in wake of Aaron Swartz's suicide

University president says MIT will launch an investigation of the school's role in the events that led up to the Internet activist taking his own life Friday.

Aaron Swartz. Fred Benson/ Creative Commons: Flickr

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced today it will conduct an internal investigation of the university's role in the circumstances that led to the suicide Friday of Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Swartz, 26, was arrested in July 2011 and accused of stealing 4 million documents from MIT and Jstor, an archive of scientific journals and academic papers. Authorities claimed he broke into a restricted-access computer wiring closet at MIT and accessed that network without authorization.

A champion of open access to documents on the Internet, Swartz faced $4 million in fines and more than 50 years in prison if convicted.

Swartz had founded the nonprofit group Demand Progress, which was active in the anti-SOPA battle, and earlier sold a company he founded called Infogami to Reddit.

In a statement released today, MIT President L. Rafael Reif offered his condolences, saying that the school's community was "extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many."

"Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT," Reif said. "I have asked professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it."

Critics of the prosecutors in the case say the feds were unfairly trying to make an example out of Swartz.

"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy," Swartz's family said in a statement released yesterday. "It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death."

CNET has contacted the U.S. Attorney's office for comment and will update this report when we learn more.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif's letter:

To the members of the MIT community:

Yesterday we received the shocking and terrible news that on Friday in New York, Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism.

Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.

I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.

I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.

I hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron's death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.

With sorrow and deep sympathy,

L. Rafael Reif

 

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